Fact#16. How addresses are determined?


Bishop: JinK-san, I know this is out of the blue, but don’t you think addresses

in Japan are confusing?

JinK: Yes, I hear that often. It even came up in a recent TED Talk.

In Japan, addresses are determined in blocks based on the partition they belong to,

whereas in the U.S. they are numbered based on the street they are on.

This video explains it quite clearly.


The numbers are allotted in a clockwise fashion for each block, not in order of

how old they are, as he says, but the rest of what he says is all correct.

Bishop: I see. I understand now how the addresses are allotted. But don’t you think

that the block-based address system is confusing? I worked part time as a mailman

when I was in university in the U.S., and I found the street-based address system

very easy to follow. Once you get to the street with the address you are looking for,

houses are lined up in an orderly fashion with the odd numbers on the right and

the even numbers on the left. This makes the address easy to find.

JinK: I agree. I think the street-based U.S. address system makes it easy to find houses.

But there’s a pretty big assumption behind that.

Bishop: What’s that?

JinK: It’s a bit obvious, but you have to know where the street is of the address

you are looking for. Now, I live in Boston; the address has four levels, starting with

the house number, followed by the street name, then the city or town (like Boston),

and finally the state (like Massachusetts). So, after “Boston” it goes right to like

“Snow St.” or “Washington St.” Furthermore, there are lots of similar streets such as

“Harvard Avenue” and “Harvard Street,” and there are lots of cases in which

I have no idea where the street is.

Bishop: I get your point. In the past, everyone had a map called the Thomas Guide in their car.

When you went to a new address you didn’t know, you’d look up the street name

in an index in the back of the book to see where the street was located. So if you were

on a road trip or something in an unfamiliar area without a Thomas Guide, there was

no way to find an address. Of course these days you can just check on Google Maps to

find out where an address is.

JinK: That’s true. I’ve gotten fairly used to it though. In Japan, the Prefecture (ken) comes first,

followed by the district (ku) or city (shi), then the town (Cho) name, followed by the Chome,

the Banchi, and finally the number, so there are six levels. It drills down into smaller and

smaller areas. So if you say xx town, xx Chome, people have a good idea of where

I’m talking about. In this respect, the Japanese system is easier to understand.

The problem with the Japanese system is that when you get close to the address you are

looking for, you don’t know where to go to find the address.

Bishop: Yes, exactly. In the U.S. we often explain where to go by telling people the cross streets

(where two streets intersect), but in Japan none of the streets, except the biggest ones,

have names, so it’s hard to explain directions to people. 10 years ago when you printed out

maps on MapQuest or the original Google Maps, in the U.S. you could print out

the directions in text and navigate with that, but in Japan the streets have no name so

you had to print out a long series of maps showing each turn.

In Japan you really don’t know where to turn unless you have a map; the most important

function of an address being confusing makes it a pretty inconvenient system.

JinK: In that case, you can just ask the people you see in that neighborhood.

They’ll be happy to help you find the address.

Bishop: Sure, but it’s a bit of a hassle to ask people every time you need to look for an address.

JinK: That’s true. It’s not the most convenient system. Though another thing that comes to

mind is that in Japan addresses are not just for finding people’s houses.

Bishop: What do you mean?

JinK: Towns in Japan are divided up into blocks under the assumption that about 10 households

will help each other out. So this assumption is behind the way that addresses are

arranged into blocks like that. The origin is the 5-person groups that were formed over

400 years ago to prevent crime, support each other, and watch each other; there has historically

been this custom of neighbors helping each other in Japan. As Japan modernized and

big cities formed, more and more often neighbors don’t know each other, so this custom

has weakened quite a bit, but even today you have town meetings and community groups

of about 10 households each. They do help each other, but these days it’s limited to things like

trash pickup and cleaning, crime prevention, and passing around notices of local events.

One difference in Japan is that you don’t put out your trash as an individual, but as a member of

that community group to one communal place. If you don’t do it properly,

your neighbors will be very unhappy with you.

Bishop: I see. So there is that extra purpose. I understand the historical background,

but I still think the Japanese system is confusing.

JinK: If the purpose is to get to a specific point, then maybe it is weird as the video title suggests.

But these days we have Google Maps, so the address system doesn’t really matter as

much any more. Rather than thinking about which is better, we can recognize the merits

of each, and minimize the demerits with technology. Don’t you think that’s great?

Bishop: Yes, that is great. I totally agree. But if I was still a mailman,

I’d prefer the street address system.

JinK: I’ll give you that. But once a system is in place, it’s really hard to change it. In Japan

the blocks are really small and there are so many little side streets,

it would be hard to try and put names on them all.

Fact#16.   Addresses are determined by street in the U.S. and by area in Japan

by Bishop & JinK.

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